Don't be lulled into a false sense of security with a newer vehicle dubbed "maintenance-free" by the manufacturer, warns Jerry Spickler, automotive instructor at Washington County Technical High School.
Maintenance-free actually means the vehicle requires less maintenance than its predecessors, but it still needs to have its oil changed, tires inflated and rotated and fluids checked, among other things, he says.
Here are a few basic how-to's:
Checking the oil:
* Before checking your oil, make sure the oil you have for your car is the right kind. The oil cap under the hood should say what type to use - if not, the owner's manual will. On the bottle of oil, look for the American Petroleum Institute (API) rating. You will see letters such as SF, SH, SG or SJ. The "S" shows it's for spark engine vehicles, meaning ones run by gasoline. The letter following the "S" sets a timeline, with "A" being back in the 1950s. If you have a relatively modern car, stay away from an SA rating - that's only good for cars made in the 1950s or 1960s. An SJ rating is generally acceptable for most cars, except very early models. Oil containers marked "CC" are for compression - diesel - engines.
* Make sure the vehicle is on level ground and the engine has cooled for a few minutes.
* Find oil dipstick, pull it out and wipe it clean with paper towel or clean rag.
* Reinsert dipstick, making sure to push it in all the way, and remove it again.
* The oil on the end should be the color of honey and drippy. If it's clumpy or dark, you need an oil change. Driving with dirty oil can shorten your engine's life span.
* The oil level should be between the line marked "full" and the line marked "low." If it is near or at low, add 1/2 quart of oil.
* After a minute, recheck. If oil level is still low, add another 1/2 quart. When oil level is satisfactory, replace the dipstick.
Note: If you have to add more than a quart of oil at a time, unless you're changing the oil, you may have a leak. There may be a puddle under your car or it may be visible on part of the engine. If so, visit a repair shop.
Changing the oil:
* Park vehicle on level ground
* Raise it up on stands, which average about $20 to $40 for a set of two, or on a ramp. Some vehicles may be easy to slide under without the use of an elevating device.
* Remove drain plug on bottom of oil pan under engine.
* Inspect drain plug seal. If it's metal or plastic and shows any signs of deformity, replace it. If it's paper, replace it during every oil change.
* Drain oil into pan measuring about 20 inches wide that can hold four to five quarts of oil.
* Remove oil filter with oil filter wrench, which looks like a metal strap. Do not use a screwdriver - it could puncture the filter. Some oil may run out when you do this, so have your pan handy.
* Discard old filter. Make sure rubber seal is discarded, too.
* Put engine oil on rubber seal of new filter, then twist filter into place until snug, plus one additional turn.
* Replace drain plug. Don't overtighten.
* Add oil in proper spot under hood. Check owner's manual for type of oil and proper amount.
* Start vehicle and look underneath to make sure there are no leaks.
* Take old oil to a garage that will dispose of it properly or to a dump that has a storage area for oil.
* Change oil about every 3,000 miles.